Brexit, Gibraltar and the prospect of war with Spain

By Rhodri Sheldrake Davies

The recent European Commission assertion that Spain will be able to decide whether a Brexit deal would also apply to Gibraltar, has led to a revival of diplomatic tensions between the UK, the EU and Spain over the small sliver of land located on the strait between Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. This came only a week after Theresa May triggered Article 50 to begin the UK’s process of leaving the EU on March 29th.

The Government of Gibraltar has, in turn, voiced serious concerns and accused the European Union of behaving like a “cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children.” The territory had notably voted to Remain in the EU by a margin of 92%, with a mere 4% of voters choosing to Leave.

Parliament’s response to this development was chaotic, to say the least. Lord Howard, leader of the Conservative Party 2003-2005, provoked outrage by suggesting that the UK may need to be prepared to use military measures, drawing parallels to the Falklands conflict. He stated: “Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman Prime Minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

However, the prospect of ‘war’ against our NATO ally and long-standing friend, which would likely trigger an international crisis, was quickly rejected by Lord Howard’s parliamentary colleagues. Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron claimed that Brexiteers such as Howard were “sabre-rattling for war,” whilst Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to laugh off so-called “war talk,” despite retaining a strong line on Gibraltar’s sovereignty, telling the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, that “Britain will not negotiate away Gibraltar’s sovereignty as part of Brexit talks.”

On the Spanish side, Foreign Minister Aflonso Dastis (PP), remarked to El País that he was “a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure,” alleging potential issues in the British diplomatic service, which had been warned by the Norwegian PM in January that it “lacks negotiating experience.”
The context for this diplomatic clash follows on from Symposium on the Treaty of Utrecht, held at the residence of the Spanish Ambassador in 2013, which marked 3 decades since the signing of the document which reshaped the face of Europe. The Symposium yielded discussions that both reinforced and contradicted the position of the Spanish PP Government, which (with a great deal of its public’s backing) refuses to accept modern Gibraltarian sovereignty.

Spain argues that the UK had passed power onto a third party, without allowing Spain the right to claim back what is its historic territory and hence violated the treaty. As well as pointing to multiple UN resolutions, which refuse to recognise the new, non-Iberian population of Gibraltar as legitimate, following the expulsion of its original Spanish residents in 1713. Similarly, it raises the issue of Gibraltar’s listing as a ‘territory for decolonisation’, putting it in a similar category to Hong Kong pre-1997.

So, is there any substance to this claim? To an extent, yes. In 2006, following the creation of the Gibraltar Constitution, the UK seceded almost all of Gibraltar’s affairs to its Territorial Government (bar defence and foreign relations), hence technically violating the original version of the Treaty of Utrecht. As far as international law is concerned, the Peninsula’s status as a British Overseas Territory, hence technically part of the imperial domain, puts it in a contentious position.

However, what the Spanish government fails to take into account, and perhaps the one factor which still gives the British the edge, is right to self-determination of the Gibraltarian people, who have voted time and again to reject any sort of mixed sovereignty deal with Spain, as seen in other territories such as Hong Kong, as well as full independence, as seen in the case of Malta.

What is evident all the same is that the power given to Spain to exempt Gibraltar from the Brexit deal may well have massive ramifications for the Peninsula, including potential forced reunification and loss of sovereignty. This has led many commentators online to ridicule the claims of LEAVE.EU in a tweet last year which stated: “The interests of the people of Gibraltar are best protected by a strong and independent UK #VoteLeave #InOrOut.”

It can be surmised that whilst this move hasn’t changed either side’s position on the sovereignty of the Peninsula, its future independence now looks more threatened than ever before. One cannot help but note that this affair does not bode well for the wider Brexit process. It will act as yet another hurdle in the UK government’s attempts to provide what its people voted for in June of last year.

Photograph: Dave Jenkins via Flickr

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